It’s that time of year where history’s most famous CEO steps up to deliver on his annual project. Santa Claus is a cultural behemoth. Hardly a soul on Earth is unaware of his specific approach to leadership, replete with elves, reindeer, sleighs and coal.
But is Santa a good leader? Where does he impress and where could he improve? In what areas can we learn from Santa and in what areas could he perhaps do with updating his approach?
The primary positive of Santa’s leadership, one that many a budding CEO could learn from, is that he sets clear goals and always hits his deadline.
Every year, Santa has the job of delivering presents to every child in the world. And every year, he does it. Now, there may be questions regarding his timing. It would appear that Santa suffers from the same tendency to leave his major tasks to the last minute as many of us. He has a whole year to deliver on his project and yet, without fail, does not get around to distribution until Christmas Eve.
That said, Santa never misses a deadline. Every Christmas morning, children the world over awaken to their new presents under the tree. The truth is that some of us thrive under the pressure of an impending deadline. One might have thought that after centuries of the same deliverable, Santa would learn his lesson and get his act together, delivering methodically throughout the year rather than needing to unload everything in one final dump. However, it would appear that no matter how many times he’s done it, Santa needs to feel that extra spike of pressure as the deadline looms ever closer in order to get the job done. It’s a trait that for many of us is a little too relatable.
Santa gets stuck in
Too often CEOs are happy to let their team do all the work, only to step in and take the credit when all is done (or point the finger of blame if things go wrong). While Santa is guilty of letting his elves undertake the brunt of the work through the year (arguably just the result of good delegation), when it comes time to deliver, Santa is there front and centre, riding the sleigh and taking responsibility. He could no doubt entrust one of the elves with this responsibility or even outsource the task to a third-party operation – I’m sure Tony McKCoy, Lewis Hamilton or any other famed steerer of steed or cart would love the opportunity – but no. Santa is there, getting his hands dirty when it matters most.
That said, Santa’s decision to lead the line on delivery night does speak to one of his baser traits: taking all the credit.
As noted, the elves are slaving away all year to ensure everything is in order for the big man to push things over the line on the day. But who is it that gets all the focus? Santa, of course. The media pour their attention on him in large part due to his clever branding (red suit, large beard, an air of eccentricity). But would it kill him once in a while to acknowledge the role his elves and reindeer play in providing a platform for his success? Seemingly, a touch of humility is too much to ask; he’d rather bask in all the glory without giving credit to his team.
Good leaders know that they are only as good as their team and that acknowledging their staff’s hard work goes a long way.
As well as consistently hitting his deadline, Santa is always crystal clear on his brief, both to staff and the wider public. His staff know that their role is to deliver presents to every child in the world by Christmas Day. Children know that he’s making a list and checking it twice, and that good behaviour will land them on the nice list, while naughty behaviour…well, it doesn’t bear thinking about.
Of course, critics could well point to Santa’s naughty and nice list as an example of poor leadership, attempting to incentivise through fear. Placing a lump of coal in the stocking of children he deems unworthy certainly feels draconian by modern standards. That said, his strongman leadership tends to yield results, with far more nice kids than naughty and very little coal doled out in earnest.
A loyal workforce
Despite not dispersing credit as generously as he could, Santa has cultivated a loyal workforce. His elves and reindeer seem to stick with him, with very little turnover of staff. That suggests that Santa has made Lapland an enjoyable place to work, probably with an enviable work-life balance, decent salary progression and maybe even a ping pong table.
However, it must be noted that there’s very little room for growth within Santa’s organisation. He’s the top dog and everyone under him seems to be working in a fixed position, with no higher rung of the ladder they can climb to by playing their cards right. Perhaps should he one day choose to retire, we may witness a Succession-esque bid for power from a series of his most ruthless elves, but for now the ceiling for career progression in Lapland seems low and unbending.
Lack of diversity
The one obvious example of a promotion in Santa’s operation is Rudolph (the red nosed reindeer, for those in doubt). However, his upgrading to the front of the sleigh seems if anything to be the exception that proves the rule, and ultimately to highlight another of Santa’s managerial deficiencies: a lack of diversity.
Prior to his do-or-die promotion, reports indicate that Rudolph was brutally mocked for the colour and glowiness of his nose. It would appear that Santa has cultivated a toxic work environment with a lack of diversity in personnel and thought. After all, the bulk of the legwork is conducted solely by elves. Perhaps by opening up to other creatures – goblins, ghouls, influencers etc. – we might see a greater plurality of thought amongst Santa’s workforce, rather than the hegemonic current state of play.
Santa has shown a willingness to embrace modernity in his gift-giving, always up to speed with modern trends. That spirit of innovation, though, is seriously lacking when it comes to his process.
As any good business knows, innovation is about more than just product and output, it’s about the process by which outcomes are achieved. How can we streamline our operation so as to ensure maximum productivity and staff satisfaction?
Santa’s methods of delivery have served him well, and there is an argument to be made that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That said, perhaps, in a changing world, there is a more operationally efficient way to achieve his goals than flying a sleigh through the sky at night with nothing but a glowing nose for guidance and likely no seatbelts. Not to mention the physical strain he places on his reindeer, who are probably only one trip to PETA away from putting an end to this operation for good. Even tried and tested methods need updating every once in a while.
As previously noted, Santa is more than happy to accept plaudits for the operation without sufficiently doling out credit to his staff. But when things go wrong, where is he?
By which I mean, when I was ten years-old, all I wanted for Christmas was the new David Bowie album. And yet, when Christmas Day came around, it was starkly lacking. In its place was a jumper and a book. While these days a jumper and book would be my ideal gifts, back then such presents bordered on a declaration of war.
And yet, when I wanted to raise my concerns with Santa regarding his dismissive attitude to the carefully curated wish list I sent him prior to the big day, he was unreachable. Good leaders are accountable for the good and bad of their operation. In this regard, Santa falls short, and ten year-old me is yet to forgive him.
If you’re running a global delivery service built on the backs of what arguably constitutes slave labour (here’s looking at you, Jeff Bezos), then Santa is and forever will be the model to follow. However, for a normal CEO, more humility, accountability, championing of diversity, and coal-free incentivisation methods may be required.